Finding Immigrant Neighborhoods with Foreign-Born Data

foreign born flag


Foreign Born by Country of Birth


Census ACS

Find on PolicyMap

  • Demographics
    • Population
      • Foreign Born

If you wanted to find the largest Chinese immigrant neighborhood in New York City, you might first go to Chinatown in Lower Manhattan. There, you’d find a vibrant historic ethnic enclave, but it wouldn’t be the largest Chinese immigrant neighborhood in the city. For that, you’d have to go out to the Flushing neighborhood in Queens, with higher rates of foreign-born Chinese individuals than Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Likewise, if you are curious about the most prevalent foreign-born countries of birth in Los Angeles, you might be unsurprised to discover that while most of the city’s foreign born population originated in Mexico and India, in some areas north of the city, the foreign born population comes predominantly from the Ukraine, Russia, Australia, England, Sweden, and even Israel and Ethiopia.

This all comes from the foreign-born data from the Census’s American Community Survey (ACS). The data, for the five-year period of 2012-2016, is available for over a hundred and twenty different countries of birth, as well as continents and global regions.

Foreign-born data in the Demographics menu

You can also see the predominant foreign country of birth in a given area, showing distinct pockets of various groups. This data is helpful in evaluating immigration policies and developing effective refugee support programs, in addition to being useful for tracking immigrant group assimilation across the country.

The Census defines the foreign-born population (here on page 56) as residents who were not U.S. citizens at birth (excluding those born at sea). Because anyone born in the U.S. is by definition a citizen, this includes only people born outside the U.S. However, it does not include U.S. citizens who were born in Puerto Rico, in a U.S. Island Area, or while their U.S. citizen parents were abroad.

It is also important to note that current citizenship status can vary among the foreign-born population. It includes naturalized U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, temporary migrants, humanitarian migrants, and unauthorized migrants (often called “undocumented” or “illegal” immigrants). The ACS does not ask about immigrant status.

Foreign born residents account for just over 13% of the total United States population, with a total of approximately 42,000,000 residents. The majority (27.3%) of the foreign-born residents are from Mexico. India, China (excluding Hong Kong and Taiwan), and Philippines are the next most populous countries of birth, though combined they still do not equal the total foreign-born population from Mexico.

The story of which countries have had the most immigration into the U.S. has changed dramatically over time. While in 1900 Germany and the United Kingdom dominated the foreign-born population, today Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, and Filipinos are some of the largest foreign-born populations.

Most of the current immigration trends are the result of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that replaced an earlier quota system and instead focused on connecting families and attracting a skilled labor force. The Migration Policy Institute has a good tool showing historic trends across immigrant groups.

Predominant Country of Birth

Aside from maps on individual countries of birth, it would also be useful and interesting to see a single map showing areas of specific immigrant groups.

To this end, we calculated the predominant, or most frequent, country of birth among the foreign-born population for individual geographies across the United States. The resulting map shows that across the U.S. most of the foreign population was born in Mexico, being the most predominant country of birth among 34.7% of the geographies in the United States. Canada is the next most frequent predominant country of birth with just under 2%, and generally concentrates in those geographies touching the border with Canada.

Since Mexico is by far the most common predominant country of birth, to see other existing groups we also calculated predominant country of birth excluding Mexico. This second map visually demonstrates that America is indeed a “patchwork quilt,” full of small enclaves of immigrants from different countries.

Although mapping predominant foreign-born groups does not answer the long-standing question of whether the U.S. is a “melting pot” of assimilated ethnic groups or “patchwork quilt” of social enclaves, it does show where specific clusters exist. For instance, looking at El Cajon in San Diego we can see a prominent group of residents from Iraq, encouraged to live there through a resettlement effort in the area.

While the predominant country of birth data is fascinating to explore it only tells part of the story. Just because one group is predominant, you’ll have to dig deeper to know how prominent. By definition, every geography with any foreign-born population will have one group that makes up the largest percentage in that area. Despite being the predominant foreign-born country of birth, this does not necessarily mean that population represents the majority of the total foreign-born population or necessarily a large percentage of the total area’s population. Examining the specific country of birth data along with the predominant country of birth category will give a clearer understanding of the foreign-born population for any given geography.

Notes on International Geography

Foreign-born residents were asked to identify their country of birth according to current international boundaries so only current political boundaries are be shown for the latest ACS data. This differs from the DHS Immigration data, which is displayed as the country of origin at the time of immigration and includes previous political boundaries, like the Soviet Union.

On PolicyMap, country of birth data is available for countries, continents, and geographic regions. It’s also available for individual countries or country affiliations, such as United Kingdom, including crown dependencies. Some of these geographic options may contain overlapping data, such as China with and without Hong Kong and Taiwan (China has had a long standing dispute over its claim to Taiwan). By contrast, when calculating the predominant country of birth data, we did not include any overlapping geographies to prevent double counting of data. With few exceptions, the most granular geographic level was selected for the predominant country of birth data.

The ACS did not release detailed data about all potential countries of birth. For some countries with small populations in the U.S., the countries were combined with other similar regional countries, such as foreign-born residents from “Other Middle Africa.” These groupings include all those foreign-born residents from the region’s countries that are not otherwise specified individually.

Also worth noting, the ACS makes certain imputations when this field is left blank. According to the Census: “People not reporting a place of birth were assigned the state or country of birth of another family member, or were allocated the response of another individual with similar characteristics.”

This data is available to all PolicyMap users, and is in the Demographics menu, under “Foreign Born.”


Photo credit: Gerson Galang